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A sign at one of the many vigils honoring Dr. Tiller after he was murdered
(Photo: Priya Deonarain/Creative Commons)
 

Two years ago, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down in his church in Wichita, Kansas. He had been threatened and harassed for years. His clinic was routinely vandalized, including by his murderer. He had already survived one assassination attempt in 1993. Operation Rescue, the anti-choice organization that claims to oppose violence and yet is frequently linked to violent acts against clinics and doctors, relocated its headquarters to Wichita for the explicit purpose of trying to shut down Dr. Tiller's clinic. Still, Dr. Tiller refused to be intimidated. Every day, he put his life on the line to provide health care to women.

The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act might have saved his life. The law clearly states:

This statute prohibits (1) the use of force or threat of force or physical obstruction, to intentionally injure, intimidate or interfere with or attempt to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person or any class of persons from obtaining or providing reproductive health services ...

Enacted in 1994 under President Clinton, FACE was designed as a tool for law enforcement to be able to protect patients and doctors from "pro-life" terrorists. Under President Bush, however, the law was all but ignored. By the time President Obama took office and started once again to enforce the law, it was too late. Harassment and vandalism, including by Dr. Tiller's assassin, were reported to the authorities. And yet, the authorities did nothing. Dr. Tiller died on May 31, 2009, and his clinic closed shortly thereafter. Operation Rescue, which had provided critical information to Dr. Tiller's assassin through its senior policy adviser, convicted terrorist Cheryl Sullenger, had at last succeeded.

But the death of Dr. Tiller was not enough for the movement that calls itself "pro-life." And now it has set its sights on its next target: Dr. Mila Means.

Means would be the first doctor to perform abortions in Wichita since the murder. But before she even could start, Operation Rescue made her a target, posting her photo and address online. [...]

Another anti-abortion outfit, Kansans for Life, has been sending out emails warning that a "grave evil threatens our community" and assailing Means for attempting to set up "a killing center" in Wichita.

Despite claims from the most prominent anti-choice organizations, like Operation Rescue, that they do not condone violence, Dr. Means has already had her life threatened. Fortunately, this time, the Department of Justice took action:

[O]n or about Jan. 15, 2011, [Angel] Dillard mailed a threatening letter to a doctor training to perform abortions in Wichita, Kan. The letter, among other threatening language, referenced explosives placed under the doctor’s car. The FACE Act prohibits threats of force against any person providing or obtaining reproductive health services, with the intent to intimidate or interfere with that person.

Among other things, Dillard wrote: “Thousands of people are already looking into your background, not just in Wichita, but from all over the U.S. They will know your habits and routines. They will know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live. You will be checking under your car everyday-because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.” Later Dillard added: “We will not let this abomination continue without doing everything we can to stop it.”

Angel Dillard isn't just a "pro-life" activist. She is also, as she told the Associated Press in 2009, a friend and fan of Dr. Tiller's assassin:

"With one move, (Roeder) was able... to accomplish what we had not been able to do," Dillard said. "So he followed his convictions, and I admire that."

Dillard's threats against Dr. Means clearly violate FACE. She is part of a movement that has stated, unequivocally, its intent to prevent Dr. Means from providing abortions. But the judge doesn't see it that way:

U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten ruled last month that while Dillard's letter was clearly meant to intimidate Means, it wasn't a threat. The judge denied the government's request for a preliminary injunction at that time, calling the First Amendment the "absolute bedrock of this country's freedom" and ruling the letter was not a true threat.

This is, of course, bullshit. The forced birth movement has already demonstrated, through 6,143 acts of violence and another 156,961 acts of "non-violent" terrorism, its willingness and ability to threaten, harm, terrorize, and even murder those whom it deems enemies. Right there in Wichita. And while the judge has thus far found Dillard's letter to be merely "intimidating" and not "threatening," intimidating an abortion provider is still, under FACE, unlawful.

Worse still, Dillard is now suing the Department of Justice:

WICHITA, Kan. — An anti-abortion activist accused of sending a threatening letter to a Kansas doctor filed a counterclaim Tuesday against the Justice Department, contending that the government's lawsuit against her has had "an unlawful chilling effect" on her free speech and religious rights.

Truth is, it should have a chilling affect on the kind of "free speech" that leads to dead doctors. The First Amendment is not a cover from behind which those who claim to cherish life can issue threats, especially when they have demonstrated, again and again, how deadly their threats can be.

The Department of Justice is right. The judge is wrong. Dead wrong. To ignore the seriousness of Dillard's letter, or the extreme lengths to which the anti-choice movement will go—including the current legislative trend of attempting to legalize murdering abortion providers in Iowa and Nebraska and South Dakota—is to repeat the mistakes made by law enforcement when Dr. Tiller was still alive. FACE exists specifically to protect those doctors, like George Tiller and Mila Means, who are willing to endanger their own lives to provide care to women. But FACE only works to the extent that it is enforced. In Dr. Tiller's case, it wasn't. For Dr. Means, it is not yet too late.

And it's about damn time those with the power to enforce the law actually do so, before the "pro-life" movement claims yet another victim.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun May 22, 2011 at 10:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism and Abortion.

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